Three years ago, my husband, my father and I had occasion to visit New York City for a few days, and during a walk through Central Park, a particular tree caught my attention. I walked around and around it for several minutes, marveling at all its textures, colors, shapes, and hollows. I have no idea what species it was, because it was so deformed by its hard life. I took several photos of it from all sides, because I knew I had to draw it someday.
Fast forward to February 2019. The upcoming March 31 entry deadline for the CPSA International Exhibition motivated me to finally tackle this tree. To be worthy of inclusion in the highly-competitive show, I need to create something that is both technically challenging and has something to say. And this tree has a lot to say. It took several days for me to decide which of my photos to use for reference, because the tree has no “quiet side”. There was sooooo much detail, and I wanted to include it all!
Here’s how I approached this project, and how I solved a significant problem with it.
Normally, I complete the background of a drawing first, because it establishes the environment that affects the colors and values in the subject. But I had a big problem: I didn’t like the background in any of my reference photos; it drained the drama out of the tree. It had to go. But I had no ideas for a worthy replacement, and I needed to get started. I figured I could ponder the background, sift through my photo library, and come up with an idea by the time the tree itself was finished. So I moved ahead with the tree.
Drawing the Tree
Once I established very basic outlines on my 15″ x 20″ sheet of Stonehenge paper, my first step was to place the absolute darkest dark areas. They became my landmarks to prevent getting lost as I worked. Then I lightly blocked in the overall base tree colors with Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle watercolor pencils and water. This would also help prevent getting lost, and reduce the appearance of speckles of paper peeking through pigment later.
Lacking the background, I used value finders (small holes punched in cards, to isolate corresponding spots of color in reference and drawing) to ensure my values were on target. It was divide and conquer, one section at a time.
I developed the bottom and right sides first because I could reach them easily, then flipped the whole drawing and my reference photo upside down to develop the top and left. This way, I didn’t have to reach far up my drawing table or reach across pristine paper or finished areas to risk scuffing or smudging them. If you’ve never flipped a drawing upside down to work on it, you might think that would make it much harder to get right. But drawing is all about seeing shapes, colors, and textures rather than relying on the shorthand symbols your brain creates for familiar objects, so it works well!
The tree’s huge number of textures, directions, colors, shapes and hollows were challenging. I soon realized the tree had even more to say since I was “listening” intently. Its title came to me: “Tree of Witness”. A lifetime of witnessing the best and worst of human behavior alters people, so might it also alter a tree? While standing for decades in New York’s Central Park, I’m sure this tree has witnessed a great deal. It wears all that it has lived through.
The Sky Problem Solved
After about 60 hours’ work across 4 weeks, the tree itself was finished. I could no longer postpone a decision about the background. The last thing I wanted was to ruin the work with a lame background! I spent several hours using Photoshop to experiment on my reference photo with half a dozen skies, then slept on it overnight. In the morning, the choice was clear: a sky that evokes a past or pending turmoil as well as some hope, yet doesn’t speak louder than the tree.
The sky covers less area than the tree, yet seemed to take as long to create, because creating a very smooth texture with multiple layers and soft transitions of color is time-consuming. Once the sky was complete, my personal observations of late-evening ambient light informed me how to adjust the colors of the grassy field and path and create a transition at the horizon to make it all work harmoniously together.
The Pencils Used
I used only Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast pencils, because they are both professional-quality lightfast pencils and I wanted to see how well they work together (the answer to that is: great!)
It’s funny, there are certain colors in any set which, when you first look at them and make a swatch, you think “When would I ever use this odd color?” And then one day you discover that that “odd” color is perfect for here…and here…and here…and just all over the place, and you end up using it more than any of the more basic colors. For this project, those colors turned out to be Luminance “Violet Gray” and Lightfast “Olive Earth”. Violet Gray was important in both the tree and the sky. Olive Earth was important in both the tree and the grass.
All together, besides the initial washes of Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles, I used 34 colors in “Tree of Witness”: 28 Luminance and 6 Lightfast. Fully 20 of those colors were used for the tree itself!
It’s framed under Optium acrylic with a dark neutral mat and simple wood frame, and hanging on my wall, where I’m enjoying it every day. It has been shared on social media. In another month, I’ll know whether it is accepted into this year’s CPSA International Exhibition. Whether or not it ever appears in any show or wins any award, I’m pretty happy with “Tree of Witness”. I’ve given that Central Park tree a voice for its story.